CNS PHOTO | SHANNON STAPLETON, REUTERS
A Palmetto M4 assault rifle is seen at a gun store in Parker Colo. A new survey shows 62% of U.S. Catholics favour stricter gun control.
As momentum builds to implement new limits on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips, the U.S. Catholic bishops say they want "reasonable restrictions" on gun ownership without infringing upon Second Amendment rights.
"The bishops continue to support measures that control the sale and use of firearms and continue to call for sensible regulations on handguns," Kathy Saile, the bishops' director of domestic social development, told Catholic News Service.
"In addition to that, we need to make a serious commitment to address the pervasive role that addiction and mental illness have in crime," she said in the wake of the horrendous events of Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children, six educators and the heavily armed gunman who attacked the school dead.
If gun control measures are introduced in Congress, the bishops will discuss whether to issue a public statement and how active to become involved in the legislative process, Saile added.
In a Dec. 21 statement on the shooting, the chairmen of three U.S. bishops' committees – domestic policy, communications, and marriage and family life – reiterated points from the bishops' 2000 statement on crime and criminal justice.
In it they called for "measures that control the sale and use of firearms . . . that make guns safer" and for "sensible regulations of handguns."
Sen. Joe Manchin, a Catholic, welcomed the Catholic Church's involvement in the conversation on gun violence and possible restrictions on certain firearms.
The senator, a strong supporter of gun rights, told CNS that the Church could play a significant role in upcoming discussions that he hopes will involve not just Congress and the White House, but also mental health professionals, law enforcement officers and child advocates in determining the best path to protect society.
"These are the conversations I'm now willing to have. It's something we should do now," Manchin said.
"If you're blaming it all on guns, then you're blaming me as someone who's used guns. You're pushing me into a silent mode," Manchin said.
Manchin's unexpected call on the Morning Joe show Dec. 17 for a national conversation on gun violence was uplifting to grassroots groups that since the Newtown atrocity have renewed their desire to see assault weapons outlawed and stricter limits on all firearms.
The call for stricter gun laws comes as Americans now possess nearly 300 million firearms. The number of guns in private hands has climbed exponentially over the years.
The bishops' stance on gun control has remained in place since 1975 when they called for a national firearms policy. Their concern then was over the proliferation of "Saturday night specials," cheaply made and inexpensive weapons that debuted four decades ago and quickly became the weapon of choice for street criminals.
Their distress over gun violence surfaced again in 1994 in a pastoral message titled Confronting a Culture of Violence: A Catholic Framework for Action.
While they did not call for specific controls on firearms at the time, the bishops cited the proliferation of guns among young people and the rising number of shooting deaths and injuries among children and teenagers as priorities for the country to address.
The bishops since then widened their focus to encompass assault weapons. Prior to the past two presidential elections, the bishops in their quadrennial statement Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship supported "reasonable restrictions on access to assault weapons and handguns."
The bishops are not alone. Other religious leaders, community activists and advocates for families and children have long called for strict regulations and bans on weapons specifically designed to kill, as well as stronger controls on handguns.
Details of a survey released in August by the Public Religion Research Institute show that 62 per cent of Catholics favour stricter gun control laws. That compares with 35 per cent of white evangelical Protestants and 42 per cent of white mainline Protestants.
Overall, according to the survey, 52 per cent of people favour stricter regulations on guns with 44 per cent opposed.
Conducted in early August, the survey sampled 1,006 adults and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Such calls, however, have largely been ignored in Congress and in state legislatures over the years.
Citing the rights established under the Second Amendment, the pro-gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, has deployed dozens of lobbyists and spent hundreds of millions of dollars to overturn existing regulations on guns and defeat new efforts to limit gun rights for decades.
The killings at Sandy Hook may just cause the political landscape to change, however, especially as some key pro-gun legislators have said their desire is the safety of all Americans.